Sunday, 27 December 2009

Shakespeare overtaken in the neologism stakes by the Simpsons?

In The Age newspaper yesterday Ken Nguyen wrote about the perils of quoting from the Simpsons; he sets out a range of possible faux pas, the worst of which is 'to use any of the early seasons' self-consciously manufactured catchphrases' - Eat my shorts, for instance.

I won't be likely to make this faux pas, as I don't know any phrases from The Simpsons.

Not consciously, that is. But I may be more influenced by this television program than I realise. Nguyen refers to a comment by Mark Liberman of Language Log that The Simpsons has apparently taken over from Shakespeare and the Bible as our culture's greatest source of idioms, catchphrases and sundry other textual allusions.'

Liberman originally mentioned the idea only in passing, but it's spreading around the Net.

Considering that The Simpsons has now been around for twenty years I guess it could have had a massive impact on our vocabulary, but I'd doubt it could equal the huge number of nelogisms attributed to Shakespeare. Here's a piece from The Washington Post that quotes from Harper's Weekly:

If you had lived in Shakespeare's time you might not have ranked him as the best of the London dramatists. In the April issue of Harper's, Jonathan Bate explores how Shakespeare emerged to become the most famous writer in the world, and how his works have endured all the changes in taste and political fashion over the past four centuries. I can't find a (free) link to the story online, so I'm going to type in a passage on Shakespeare's neologisms. It's not true, Bate writes, that Shakespeare coined more English words than anyone else. But his coinage was still impressive:

'He gave us such verbs as "puke," "torture," "misquote," "gossip," "swagger," "blanket" (PoorTom's "blanket my loins" in Lear), and "champion" (Macbeth's "champion me to the utterance"). He invented the nouns "critic," "mountaineer," "pageantry," and "eyeball"; the adjectives "fashionable," "unreal," "blood-stained," "deafening," "majestic," and "domineering"; the adverbs "instinctively" and "obsequiously" in the sense of "behaving in the appropriate way to render obsequies for the dead." Many of Shakespeare's coinages are not new words but old words in new contexts (such as the application of "manager" to the entertainment business, with Midsummer Night's Dream's "manager of mirth") or new compounds or old words wrested to new grammatical usage. Although twenty-first-century electronic databases diminish the extent of Shakespeare's actual coinages, they immeasurably enrich our sense of the astonishingly multivalent, polysemous quality of his language.'

Friday, 25 December 2009

weeding the garden and pit verbs

Recently I was thinking about the verb to weed, so I was interested to read a post today on Language Log about verbs that mean removing the thing that is named, for instance to bone a piece of meat, to gut a fish or to string a bean.

The post also refers to pitting a cherry and says this is why this type of verb is called a pit verb. I would not use the word pit to refer to the seed in a cherry. I'd use the noun pip instead, and I think this is probably standard in Australia. But if I needed a verb for the action I'd say I was going to pit the cherries.

I definitely wouldn't say I was pipping cherries.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

christmas wishes and seasonal wishes to everyone

On behalf of Penny and myself, I'd like to wish everyone a happy holiday season, no matter what kind of celebrations you have at this midsummer/midwinter season.

Best wishes for peace and joy.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

when our choice of vocabulary changes our thinking

I used to hate weeding the garden. Now I don't mind, because I think of it as harvesting the weeds.

My attitude to this task alters with the use of a different verb.

I made this change in my vocabulary, and thus in my thinking, when I read a couple of books by Jackie French: Soil Food and Organic Control of Common Weeds. She believes weeds have a place in our gardens, because they stabilise disturbed ground and prepare it for other species to grow there when the time is ripe. In Organic Control of Common Weeds she writes that they are plants 'in conflict with human wishes... Deep rooted weeds can bring up leached elements from deep in the soil where shallower-rooted plants can't reach. As their leaves break down these nutrients are returned to the top soil where shallow-rooted plants can use them.'

In Soil Food she explains how to sink weeds into a bucket of water (with a lid so mosquitoes don't colonise) and wait for them to decompose. The liquid can then be watered down as a light fertiliser and the gunk in the bottom can be used as mulch.

Here are some weeds I happily collected today, ready to be plunged into water and covered.

And here are some that are ready to go back into the soil.

And here are more.

I now see my weeds as a resource and not a nuisance, all because of changing the words I use in thinking about them.

So what is the origin of the associated noun, weed? According to Linguistic Wonder Series in, originally in Old English we:od meant 'grass, herb, weed'.

So, I don't have to be frightened of the enormous task of pulling out the weeds in my garden. I can see it as an opportunity to return their nutrients to the soil.
If I persevere...

Monday, 21 December 2009

hell - cold or hot?

Last September I wrote that I wondered whether the word hell has a similar origin to the German word for a cave, Höhle.

I'm still not sure about that point, but in a book called Word Histories and Mysteries; From Abracadabra to Zeus I read that for the Old English, Hell was a black and fiery place, but for the Old Norse, hell was cold. The Old English meaning came about because the Roman Catholic church was the predominant religious system at the time in England and the Mediterranean view of torment - heat - prevailed there.

The Indo-European root behind the word is kel-, to cover, conceal, so hell once meant the concealed place.

So I guess it could be the same root as for Höhle.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

omitting apostrophes

The Australian Government Style manual, the official arbiter of grammar and punctuation in Australian publications, says of apostrophes:
It is increasingly common for the apostrophe to be dropped from the names of other institutions where the plural reference is a human reference - for example, Geologists Conference, Plumbers and Gasfitters Union. In all such cases, the plural word is not strictly possessive; its relationship with the following word or phrase is associative or descriptive, rather like an adjective.
Now, a toilet block is not usually considered an institution. But, maybe I shouldn't always smile when I'm walking in Darebin Parklands and I see these two signs:

I always have an image in my mind of little 'mens' and 'womens' making their way into the toilet block. I don't know why they have to be little, but that's the way my imagination processes it.

If I visualise the toilets as a meeting place, a kind of informal conference centre, and think of the words as having the understood extra word, toilet - mens toilet, womens toilet - then it sort of fits the rule I quoted at the start of this post, ie it's not a place owned by men or women, but a place where they are gathered.

But, deep down, I want to add an apostrophe.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

at last, a photo of Kathryn/e street that is nearly visible

Here's a pretty good nother try at photographing the strange additional letter on the sign for Kathryn Street on the Metropolitan Ring Road in Melbourne.

Oh, I would so-o like to know who did it and why.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

kathryn street or kathryne street?

There's a sign on the Metropolitan Ring Road in Melbourne's north, originally posted as KATHRYN STREET but altered by some brave, obstinate or foolhardy soul to say KATHRYNE STREET.

I say 'foolhardy or brave' because it is on a bridge at a busy part of this multi-lane freeway and I can't visualise how the perpetrator got to the sign to insert the small letter 'E' on the end of the sign, or, more importantly, why they wanted to do so.

As I was driving to Melbourne on this road today, near Fawkner, I was determined to get a shot of the sign. I had my passenger all set up with camera at the ready, and here's the photo:

Yes, it's a terrible shot, and we missed the sign altogether, but it was the best we could do in the thundering traffic. So, how did the writer manage to get down to the road and add a letter to the inaccessible and dangerously-situated sign? And why did he or she care about the spelling of this word?

The saga contines...

One of these days I'll get a good photo and post it, and one day I'll find out the answer to this question.

Friday, 11 December 2009

comma splices gain credibility

I've just noticed some comma splices in such a prestigious text that I'm now doubting my own ability to spot them. It's in a book called Learning to Dance: Elizabeth Jolley: Her life and Work.

As the blurb says, 'Elizabeth Jolley is one of Australia's most significant and best-loved writers'. So, if she's using comma splices they must have a role to play. I noticed them most in a short story called Paper Children. Here are a couple of examples:
Even their letters were strange, they wrote in English because Lisa had never learned to speak anything else.

Lisa tried to look forward to the visit, she knew so little about her mother, an old lady now after a life of hard work as a doctor.
The use of these constructions seems to me to give a sense of intimacy, closeness to the point of view of the two characters in the story.

And, from another story, Pear Street Dance:
No one needed to read anything, the Newspper of Claremont Street told them all the news.
I guess, now that I'm looking out for comma splices, I'm going to find them all over the place...

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

comma splices and a frightening and thrilling Pastworld

I've just read a novel I thoroughly enjoyed. It's called Pastworld. After a while, mainly because of the age of the main characters - 17 - I realised the book was written for young people. It's published by Bloomsbury Children's Books.

The idea underlying the plot is gripping - London, in the middle of the twenty-first century, has been bought by a mega-Corporation and turned into a huge theme park where residents and visitors live according to Victorian-era laws, morality and culture. The darker side of Victorian life (and of mega-corporations!) creates a sense of evil that provides the tension.

The book's a great read and I wonder if it might one day be made into a film.

One odd thing that struck me about the writing was that the author, Ian Beck, sometimes uses comma splices.

At first I thought it was occurring only in dialogue, which seems fine to me, as it gives a sense of the individuality of a character. Here's an example from page 84. 'At least we shall travel on a steam train, you might enjoy that.'

But there are comma splices in other places too, for instance on page 88: Lucius turned to Caleb and stopped him, he held on to his arm and said almost in a whisper...

There are many more examples of this construction.

I've heard it said that the comma splice will eventually be acceptable in English. I know that I see it often in the writing of teenagers, which makes me wonder if their writing is a sign of the times to come. I like changes in English, in language generally, because to me that's a sign of life, of change and growth. But I must say that comma splices 'twang' for me when I'm reading and take me momentarily out of the world of the writer's imagination.

Anyway, here's a great gift idea for all those writers who've already moved into the brave new world of comma splicing.

When I checked out the home page of the writer, Ian Beck, I was pleasantly surprised to realise he's the author of some of the lovely picture books I've shard with young children in the past.

a good nother idea

I'm still on the trail of the new word nother. Recently my sister said, 'That'll weigh a good nother kilo, I reckon'.

Okay... now I've heard a different word than whole inserted between an and other.

So now I think maybe our brains are processing the expression as one word rather than as a phrase. Maybe it's the word another with an infix in it.

When I looked up infix in the Merriam Webster online, I was surprised to discover it can be a transitive verb or an adjective as well as a noun. However, it seems as if we don't use infixes much in English compared to other languages.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

when a gerund does the job better than another noun form

I noticed a sign on the back of a van today. It said, 'Pipe and cable locating'.

My first reaction was that it should have said, 'Pipe and cable location', as I think location is the noun that best describes what I presume this company does - scan for pipes before the client excavates.

But they used a gerund, a verb form that operates as a noun.

On reflection, I think the sign is clever, in that the gerund form creates a subtle advertisement for them as an active business that will do things for you.